Inclusivity is embedded in the original promise of Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection. Today, the region keeps that promise to residents and visitors on the autism spectrum. Some of Philly’s most popular attractions, including The Franklin Institute, Philadelphia Zoo and the Please Touch Museum® have adopted sensory-friendly policies and programming. So, too, have eminent arts organizations such as the Pennsylvania Ballet and Philadelphia Orchestra.
Much credit for the region’s expanding sensory-friendly offerings goes to Roger Ideishi, program director of occupational therapy at Temple University. Ideishi facilitates arts and cultural environments that respect both the needs of people with cognitive disabilities and the expression of the artists and attractions themselves. Here’s a look at Philadelphia venues and groups that have recently expanded their sensory-friendly programming:
- Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University – Philadelphia’s dinosaur museum offers children with autism and their families exclusive Access to Science six Saturday or Sunday mornings (9-11 a.m.) per year. For these occasions and any day, visual, easy-to-follow pre-visit Museum Stories help prepare visitors of all developmental abilities for exploring the museum. September 23, October 20 & December 28, 2018. 1900 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, (215) 299-1060, ansp.org
- Adventure Aquarium – The Delaware River Waterfront, home to blue penguins, a hammerhead shark and approximately 8,500 more aquatic species, institutes its first sensory-friendly event in 2018. The aquarium partnered with South Jersey-based Samulance to produce F.I.S.H.: Family Inclusive Special Hours, when the already largely dimly lit venue further adjusts lighting and sound levels to create a relaxed setting for all visitors. August 4, 2018. 1 Riverside Drive, Camden, NJ, (844) 474-FISH, adventureaquarium.com
- Brandywine River Museum of Art – A bucolic campus surrounds galleries known for three generations of Wyeths, which open three times per year for free Sensory-Friendly Saturdays. Registered families receive pre-visit social stories and enjoy hands-on activities, along with support from experienced volunteers, fidgets, noise-cancelling headphones and sensory break areas. Dates TBA. 1 Hoffman’s Mill Road, Chadds Ford, (610) 388-8120, brandywine.org
- The Franklin Institute – On five Sensory-Friendly Sundays per year, the tri-state area’s most-visited museum opens its doors early (8 a.m.), modifies exhibits and employs trained staff and volunteers to create a comfortable environment for visitors on the autism spectrum. Guests who pre-register are admitted free of charge, as are visitors who arrive before 9:30 a.m. The event ends at noon. Every day, sensory maps are available for permanent and temporary exhibits. October 28 & December 2, 2018. 222 N. 20thStreet, (215) 448-1200, fi.edu
- Legoland Discovery Center® Philadelphia – At Special Sensory Days (really, early evenings, 5-7 p.m.) at this indoor Montgomery County attraction, staff trained with The Ruttenberg® Autism Center help create a calm, quiet, gentle environment for children to play with the world’s most popular toys. Break rooms, reduced light, music therapy and pre- and during-visit social stories are available to families, along with a reduced ticket price. August 14, 2018. Plymouth Meeting Mall, 500 W. Germantown Pike, Plymouth Meeting, (267) 245-9696, legolanddiscoverycenter.com
- Penn Museum – This artifact-filled museum offers a sensory-friendly map that highlights quiet, dimly lit and dimly lit and quiet spaces among the galleries, along with a customizable visual schedule, a planning tool. On select Saturday mornings, Archaeology in the A.M. events open the museum early to teens and young adults with developmental or intellectual disabilities with multisensory activities: craft stations, music-making, ancient games, interactive gallery tours and a dedicated quiet space with dimmed lights and fidgets, all free with admission. September 22, 2018. 3260 South Street, (215) 898-4000, penn.museum, penn.museum/visit/accessibility
- Philadelphia Museum of Art – Sensory-Friendly Mornings at the children’s summertime Art Splash program (this year’s theme: Bright Lights, Little City) mean lights, volume and crowds are turned down in the second-floor space. The hour also offers sensory break areas, on-hand occupational therapists and hands-on art activities geared toward many developmental levels. Registered participants receive a pre-visit social guide. July 18 & 21 and August 22 & 25, 2018. 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, (215) 763-8100, philamuseum.org
- Philadelphia Zoo – America’s first zoo worked with the Center for Autism Research at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to create KidZooU, a hands-on, child-centric exhibit that uses the Universal Design concept to offer an inclusive, enriching experience for children. Pre-visit materials, including a picture-exchange system, are available on the zoo’s website. 3400 W. Girard Avenue, (215) 243-1100, philadelphiazoo.org
- Please Touch Museum – The founding premise of this boundless little kid destination: Children learn through play. The West Fairmount Park museum has dedicated quiet spaces, and staff is trained to help all kinds of kids, including those who’d like to borrow sound-reducing headphones. Four Sunday mornings per year, “Play Without Boundaries” serves children with learning and developmental disabilities and on the autism spectrum by offering a modified, sensory-friendly, all-access museum experience augmented with Floreo virtual reality, therapy animals and visits from community health experts. August 5, 2018, with more dates TBA. Memorial Hall, 4231 Avenue of the Republic, (215) 581-3181, pleasetouchmuseum.org
- Sesame Place – Just over 25 miles northeast of Center City, this vibrant amusement and water park, home to Elmo, Big Bird, Abby and Julia, has trained its staff in sensory awareness, motor and social skills, emotional awareness and communication. Sesame Place offers designated quiet rooms and low-sensory areas and a sensory guide for its attractions. 100 Sesame Road, Langhorne, (215) 702-3566, sesameplace.com
- Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts – The centerpiece of the Avenue of the Arts offers its very first Broadway Philadelphia sensory-friendly production of Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical (full run of show: December 19-29). The morning setup includes relaxed house rules, designated quiet areas, trained staff and Art-Reach volunteers and sensory-friendly kits (noise-cancelling headphones, weighted bean bags, fidget toys). Audience members are welcome to bring their own sensory-friendly stress relief devices and move about as they wish. December 22, 2018. 300 S. Broad Street, (215) 893-1999, kimmelcenter.org
- Montgomery Theater – This intimate venue puts on one relaxed performance per family musical, play or comedy, offering pre-visit materials, partially up house lights, loosened rules, quiet space, sound mitigation and a modified refund policy. The next such performance is Christmas of Swing, November 17, 2018. 124 N. Main Street, Souderton, (215) 723-9984, montgomerytheater.org
- Pennsylvania Ballet – Each winter, Philadelphia’s eminent ballet company offers its sensory-friendly performance of the popular George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®. Pre-show materials guide patrons on going to the theater, the stories behind the choreography, music, setting and characters. The theater adjusts sound and lighting and relaxes its rules—free movement and expression are welcome—and adds a quiet space and gluten-free concessions. December 27, 2018. (215) 551-7000, paballet.org, paballet.org/season-tickets/sensory-friendly-performances
- People’s Light – The mission of this large, nonprofit, professional suburban theater is education through performance. During Relaxed Performances, the house becomes a shush-free zone, so patrons with autism, ADD, ADHA, dementia and sensory sensitivities can freely express themselves during musicals and more. House lights remain low; startling lighting is reduced; sounds levels are lowered; crowds are limited; the lobby opens a quiet area, and fidget, stress- sensory toys and disposable ear plugs are available. 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern, (610) 644-3500, peopleslight.org, peopleslight.org/visit/accessibility/relaxed-performances
- Philadelphia Orchestra – The orchestra has long shared its talents with children and families during their Sound All Around concerts, held on the comfortable carpet of the Academy of Music ballroom. The group also designates the Saturday edition of these popular, intimate performances as sensory-friendly (September 15, October 20, December 1, 2018; March 2 & April 6, 2019). In 2017, the full orchestra gave its first formal sensory-friendly performance, and henceforth these concerts—and most family concerts—have featured a no-shush policy, cool-down spaces, lighting adjustments, trained helpers and both planned and impromptu interaction between musicians and audience members. July 24, 2018; May 11, 2019. (215) 893-1900, philorch.org
- Philadelphia Theatre Company – All the upcoming season’s productions at this Avenue of the Arts innovator will include a sensory-friendly (and open caption) matinee, including for the adult productions Sweat (November 3, 2018), Bridges of Madison County (March 2, 2019) and How to Catch Creation (April 13, 2019), and for the popular children’s Princess Holiday Concert (December 16, 2018). Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 400 S. Broad Street, (215) 985-0420, philadelphiatheatrecompany.org
- The Philly POPS – Known for symphonic versions of stage, blues, jazz, swing and popular tunes, this orchestra offers a sensory-friendly performance of its winter holiday concert. Broadway’s Todd Ellison conducts and Hamilton’s Mandy Gonzalez sings in A Philly POPS Christmas: Spectacular Sounds of the Season, with a judgement-free environment, mid-level sound and light, trained staff and break space and fidget devices. December 5, 2018. Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, 300 S. Broad Street, (215) 893-1999, phillypops.org, phillypops.org/sf
- Theatre Horizon – This Montgomery Country theater began offering an Autism Drama Program a decade ago and has served 680 children and adults in six-week, spring-through-fall sessions. Each season brings relaxed performances of major productions, such as The Color Purple on December 1, 2018, with another to be announced for spring 2019’s The Few. 401 DeKalb Street, Norristown, (610) 283-2230, theatrehorizon.org
- Walnut Street Theatre – America’s oldest continuously operating theater offers sensory-friendly productions of its kids’ shows (so far in 2018: Ivy + Bean) and is planning a sensory-friendly performance for adults on the spectrum in the coming season. The company also offers a 10-week course of weekly acting classes for children on the spectrum, a program that uses theater exercises and games and culminates in the class creating its very own performance. 825 Walnut Street, (215) 574-3550, walnutstreettheatre.org
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